True Grue: Charles Starkweather and the Badlands MurdersBooks/Art/Culture,Features/Interviews,News Christopher La Vigna
Welcome to “True Grue,” a weekly article that dives into real life, harrowing horrors. For the interest of good taste, this graphic feature aims not to be exploitative, but rather informative, and rest assured, there are many different territories that will be strictly off-limits. But for those with a hungry mind and a strong stomach, read on at your own discretion…
I’m going to say something very shocking here: America loves criminals. If that’s not enough, I’ve got another massive truth bomb to lay on you: America really loves criminal couples. Bonnie and Clyde are the typical example that many go to in their minds, but the long annals of American History have many tales of couples staining their hands with blood together.
One such couple, the only that could arguably rival Parker and Barrow in terms of the magnitude of their presence in American Folklore, are Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, whose murder spree along the midwest shocked the nation in the late 1950’s. In addition, one of the most disturbing aspects of the story is how no one seems to be able to agree whether or not theirs was truly a story of love gone mad or a kidnapping with devastating collateral damage.
The roots of this gory story can be found in the formative years of Charles Starkweather. Starkweather, born on November 24th 1938 in Lincoln, Nebraska, was the third of seven children. Unlike most killers, Charles Starkweather’s upbringing was characterized as being stable and respectable, though he struggled in school and eventually dropped out when he was sixteen.
Infatuated with James Dean, Starkweather began dressing himself like the REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE star, donning tight jeans, leather jackets, and turning his natural red hair black and slick with shoe polish. He embraced his degenerate persona and used it as a vehicle for his pent-up rage.
Caril Ann Fugate, the thirteen year-old sister of one of Charles’ friend’s girlfriend, became just as enthralled with Starkweather’s image as he was. The two started dating, and quickly became inseparable, much to the chagrin of Fugate’s mother and stepfather, who wanted Caril to have nothing to do with the volatile garbage collector. After seeing each other for about a year, Fugate’s parents finally forbade Caril from seeing Starkweather (though she later claimed she herself broke things off), giving Charles the spark he needed to set off the powder keg within.
The trail of bodies began at a gas station in Lincoln, Nebraska. On December 1st, 1957, Starkweather ambushed 21-year old attendant Robert Colvert, kidnapping him, robbing him, and shooting him in the back of the head, leaving the corpse on a nearby dirt road. Starkweather was not initially connected with the murder, giving him time to roam free until January 21st, 1958, when Charles paid a visit to Caril’s house, supposedly to smooth over the discord between him and the Bartlett family. Unfortunately, No peaceful agreement was reached. Starkweather shot Marion and Velda Bartlett, and stabbed their two year old daughter (and Carol’s sister) Betty jean Bartlett to death. Their bodies were later discovered by the authorities in outhouses on the property.
Again, the story of how Caril reacted to her family’s death appears to be in dispute. Some accounts claim that Fugate discovered her beau with the bodies and agreed to hide them. Others imply that she was surprised to find Starkweather at her home, and was told by Charles that he was holding them hostage, and if she did not comply, they would be killed.
Regardless, what’s not disputed is the fact that Charles and Caril Ann holed up in the Bartlett house for six days, with Caril turning away visitors with a handwritten note on the door that claimed the whole family was stricken ill with the flu. By the time loved ones and law enforcement caught on, the duo had fled to Bennet, Nebraska, where they met up with August Meyer. The seventy year-old friend of the Starkweather family was executed in the stables on his property, a shotgun blast fired by Charles taking out a large chunk of his head.
After stealing some food and money and fleeing the home, the couple hitched a ride with Robert Jensen Jr and Carol King, another pair of teenagers. Starkweather led them to a storm cellar, where he shot them both. Authorities later noted that King’s pants had been pulled down and her genitals slashed, leading to speculation that Charles had sexually assaulted her before killing them, though Starkweather lated claimed that Caril had done the slashing, jealous with rage over what she perceived to be an attraction between Carol King and her Charles.
By now, Starkweather’s victims were slowly being discovered by the police. For reasons that remain unknown, Starkweather and Fugate returned to Lincoln in Jensen’s car. They made their way to a rich neighborhood and promptly hid in the home of C. Lauer Ward and his wife Clara Ward. Upon arrival, Clara and the family’s live-in maid Lillian Fencil were in the house. Starkweather tied them up, then proceeded to brutally stab them to death. When Mr. Ward finally returned home from work, Starkweather shot him to death.
Charles and Caril fled the home in The Ward’s Packard, but ditched it quickly once they heard police descriptions of themselves and the car on the radio. They happened upon a shoe salesman named Merle Collison, napping in his buick on the side of the road. Starkweather woke Collison up and demanded his car, then shot him nine times when the salesman refused.
Immediately afterwards, Charles realized that he had no clue how to release the car’s newfangled emergency brake. When a random passerby pulled over to offer assistance, he saw Starkweather’s shotgun, and the two wrestled for control of it. The fight caught the attention of Deputy Sheriff William Romer. As he pulled up to the scene, Caril bolted from the buick towards him, reportedly shouting “He’s crazy! He’s just killed a man!” In all the bedlam, Starkweather managed to speed off in the Packard. After a hundred-mile-per-hour car chase and shootout, Starkweather believed he’d been shot when a bullet rocketed through the car’s rear window. He stopped and surrendered.
With the couple’s murderous rampage finally over, the task came to figure out exactly who was responsible for all of this seemingly random death. At first, Starkweather insisted that Fugate had nothing to do with the murders, but he soon claimed that she had in fact committed some of them. As Fugate maintained her innocence, Starkweather was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in the electric chair. On June 25th, 1959, Starkweather took those volts in the chair died like the outlaw he’d always seen himself as.
However, Caril Ann’s journey was just beginning. Unconvinced that Fugate was simply a captive of her boyfriend’s, she was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to life in prison. Fugate spent eighteen years in the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, until her reputation as a model prisoner helped get her paroled in 1976. She’s held down a variety of jobs over the decades, and in 2007 married Frederick Chair, a machinist and weather observer. On August 5th, 2013, Fugate was injured in a serious car crash that killed her husband. One might say that she is doomed to forever suffer the loss of loved ones.
Starkweather and Fugate’s spree has inspired everything from films such as Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS to Oliver Stone’s NATURAL BORN KILLERS, to Bruce Springsteen’s classic album NEBRASKA. Though the exact facts of that short and violent period across the state lines of Nebraska remain somewhat unclear, the public has morphed Charles’s and Caril Ann’s volatile love affair into an allegorical tale of passion undeterred by the harshness and cruelty of the world that surrounds it. We want to believe that love conquers all so badly that we rarely ever think to glance down at the bodies it leaves in its wake.